I grew up in Europe participating in various hobby clubs during the ‘90s. These clubs were organized according to the theme: IT, cars, electronics, and so on. They were small communities where you could go to learn and experiment with a bunch of things brought in by the other participants, a professor, and a mentor (who was the owner of the local IT shop).A group of 15-20 of us used to meet every two weeks to do all kinds of creative work, both indoors and out. This was where I started to learn about computers and electronics. Apart from the general role of the like-minded people who were interested in this topic, there was also a very experienced mentor, who was teaching us a lot of things. This person was the actual owner of the IT and electronics shop.
At the time, the majority of my friends, myself included, were trying to convince their parents to buy them their very first computers. I still remember the Intel 486 with 77 MHz and 6 MB RAM. And it was an awesome computer! We were playing Ski on it, you might remember that game.
So now, try to guess who we were going to go and buy those gadgets from? The same guy that was there with us in the club. Thanks to our relationship, he had been teaching us how to use computers.
Let’s fast forward to 2012, when I was working for Farnell element14, a company from the UK which distributes electronic components. Farnell had a huge amount of data and a huge amount of products that we were selling online. They have 976,755 products in their inventory.
And guess what they did that helped them to grow? They created a community; the same as the one we had when I was growing up in Romania. If you go to the website, you’ll see a lot of content that has been created through community engagement. They have developed:
-Webinars with the suppliers -Forums, blogs and groups-As well as all kinds of challenges and road tests.
With their challenges and road tests, Farnell element14 sends all the components you need to your house, and your task is to complete a project using those components. Together with this, you have to create a video or write an article about it, and then you get the components for free. What’s more, organizing such challenges could help Farnell element14 to discover who the best engineers in the field are. Sounds brilliant, right?
By bringing the elements of community, gamification and learning together, Farnell element14 gets a lot of customers. Through completing those competitions, you get to know the Farnell community and the company’s range of products, so you then go on to buy from Farnell’s shop. In the exact same way, we always went to buy our computers from the local shop.
And they are not the only ones in the industry doing this.
Arrow (Farnell’s competitor) does the same with Bolt.io (a startup incubator for hardware companies). They are sponsoring them with tools and components. It’s a very smart move to build a community around you.
By telling this story, I want to show you the importance of creating a community. Even if you’re a small shop, you can ‘build’ up a group of people who are centered around your niche. Here are a few steps that you could implement for your business:
Partner with local clubs, NGOs, and hackerspaces – whoever participates in your industry. You might say “Hey, but what if I’m in the fashion industry?”. It doesn’t matter, there are also people who are passionate about this niche. If you’re in fashion – I’m sure you can find school clubs or anything connected to designing clothes. Form a partnership with them, and run some creative, fashion related workshops, hackathons and competitions. By doing this, you can also get the attention of the media. They can write about you, which will provide your company with some free PR.
Partner with Related Businesses
Stick together with other small shop owners. Don’t think of all of them as competition for you. In particular, you should try to find some kind of ‘shoulder niche’. What do I mean by this? Let’s say you sell socks. So, partner with a company which sells shoes, because these products can easily be sold together. Pitch a promotion campaign together – you write on their blog and vice versa, or you mention each other in your own newsletters.
For example, what we did at Farnell was to partner up with several companies that manufacture PCBs (Printed Circuit Boards – google it). We were selling components which require PCBs to work, so we were promoting their PCB fabrication while they were promoting element14 as a place to buy components. That’s a simple example. I’m sure that when you start to brainstorm you can find those kinds of people. So reach out to them!
Giveaways and Gamification
Start organizing some kind of giveaways or gamification themed around your company. You can give out some products and, in exchange, people could create some kind of content about your product, like a blog post or an infographic. Let’s say you’re selling coffee. There are a variety of different ways to make it, of course. Believe me, you may laugh, but there are places known as coffee clubs, even in Kraków where we have our office, where they teach you how to make a good coffee. So that would be a great opportunity for you.
Reach out to local journalists. If you have formed a partnership with a local community or a shop, you can do the same thing with the press. Ask them if what you are doing with an NGO or a shop is interesting to them. Because, believe me, they are constantly looking for interesting and out-of-the-box projects. If you’re doing some kind of sock-design-improvement themed hackathon and you are doing it in partnership with an art school, collaborate with an art club in this industry too. Go and reach out to these guys. It doesn’t need to be a draining experience. You can get an intern to deal with the community.
And here we come to the last thing. Give your intern tasks related to taking care of the community so that he or she can get in touch with local clubs, schools, NGOs, different high-schools, universities and journalists. Just to see what you can do in different cities.
That way, your community can grow the same way as element14’s did. They started partnerships with a few electronics clubs and hackerspaces that they sponsored; then they went to different fairs and created more and more makers within their maker community. And that’s how they started to build up a community and understand what these people wanted to learn. If people know how to use particular products, or they’re passionate about such things, I’m sure they’d feel encouraged to come back and order something from you. Those are just a few ideas about how to create a community in e-commerce.